Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!

Mar 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Dec 012018
 


So, despite having been to every country, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the “quality” of my China trips. My first trip was back in 2005, for one night in each direction in Beijing in transit to North Korea. It was enough to walk around Tienamen Square a bit, have dinner, but not really that in-depth.

Then, the next year, back when you could still get a border zone visa on arrival, I took a daytrip from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. This was a lot more memorable, because I remember lots of rural tourists who’d probably never seen a westerner before, and they all walked to take pictures with me (and touch my arms and legs). Yet, I feel bad saying I’ve been to China without having been to Shanghai. Finally…a chance to fix that!

I would fly to Shanghai for five days for work, and then because it was majorly cheaper, take the train down to Beijing for a night before flying home. Domestic train ride and seeing Shanghai. Much better! I’ll cover the flights in another post, but here’s my random stream of consciousness from my nearly one week in China:

Landed late afternoon around 5pm, and first task was to find my way to my hotel. Just kidding, since I still had another 7-8 hours to go before bed, first task was to grab a Starbucks at the airport and THEN grab a cab. Into the cab, and immediately…Houston we have a problem. Driver speaks not a word of English, and getting him to the hotel was not going to be easy. Fortunately, google maps had chinese characters on it, and that was enough to make it work. Whew.

Checked in and had about an hour to freshen up before heading out to meet clients for a kickoff dinner. I normally don’t like cutting things this short, but due to a cold I couldn’t fly earlier, so had to make due. Since Uber is no longer in China I fired up the DiDi Taxi app, and no problem at all they soon had me at the Oriental Pearl Tower for dinner.

At the top….this is a oh hell no place if you’re not good with heights. Yup, those are glass floors….

One more shot from the bottom after dinner. I should also mention that finding the way to the top wasn’t easy, especially because the clients had booked tables for like 100 people, meaning they had pre-paid, meaning I somehow had to explain to the staff at the lifts (when I finally found them) why it was ok to take me up without a ticket. Finally managed, and all was sorted.

All was sorted…except for DiDi Taxi. See, DiDi isn’t good with foreign credit cards. Nor is it good with cash. Nor can you sign up for any of the other forms of payments without a Chinese mobile number or credit card. I learned very quickly that China has a lot of great technology and apps, however, as a non-resident many of them are virtually impossible to use. I may have been to every country, but there are still some places in the world that aren’t “easy” to get around!

Subway back to hotel, passed out, and got up super early the next morning and had a nice workout in the hotel gym before heading down to breakfast…which was an amazing plate of dim sum. I was definitely going to enjoy as much as possible during my time here! This is probably a good place to say I was thrilled with the JW Marriott Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, and the hotel was exceptional in every way. Great location, great staff, great lounge for happy hour in the evening, everything about it was top notch. I’ll definitely stay here again on my next visit!

My clients were way out in the suburbs, but rather than stay somewhere with nothing to do I decided to stay in the city. This involved riding the subway about 10-12 stops (no train changes) and then a short five minute taxi ride. I actually enjoyed this, because it was a chance to get to see a bit more of the city and have a “commuter” experience, so that was kind of awesome.

That night I had free, so with a bit of googling I found Jackie’s Beer Nest which was an amazing craft beer bar. The place was absolutely tiny, maybe 300 square feet / 35 square meters max, and three of the walls were lined with taps:

View of Shanghai from hotel breakfast….gotta love those blue skies!

Client’s campus was also absolutely gorgeous! Where’s that terrible Chinese air you hear so much about?

Best thing I found in Shanghai? Starbucks Reserve Roastery…coffee heaven!

Mmmmm syphon coffee. Yeah, at over $10 for one coffee it wasn’t cheap, but it was oh so delicious!

Amazing pastry selection. There were actually four different bars with food and coffee to choose from. The place was absolutely huge!

I believe this was either been storage, or the actual roastery…yes, they roast their own beans in the store!

Walking around at night, I came across some strange ballroom dance party in the woods in the middle of the city:

See, ballroom dancing in the woods:

One of the cool things about actually googling and finding places for dinner in a city as big as Shanghai is that it got me to take the metro to several different neighbourhoods and see several different parts of the city…so that was very cool!

The beers in this bar weren’t quite as good, but was nice to see China is actually turning out some respectable craft beers of its own now. I’d tap that…

The Radisson Hotel…with a UFO like thing on top!

Back to Jackie’s Beer Nest another night. Apparently, on your second visit, you’re family, and he just points you to the glasses and tells you to serve yourself. Tell him how many you had at the end of the night (everything is the same price) and that’s it. What a cool laid-back neighbourhood place. Good thing I don’t live near here or I’d get in trouble!

I may have gone back to Starbucks one final time before leaving Shanghai. This is just one small corner of the place!

Took the metro to the train station, since it was on the same line as my hotel, and it was super easy. I have to say, Shanghai was set up really easily to get around on public transit. Despite never being there before, and spending most of my time working, I really felt like it was easy to figure everything out.

The train station? Well, it was just a little busy:

There was, however, a business class lounge. I think there were actually several, but this was the one near my gate.

Gate 1B – queuing to board. So, many, people…until I found where business class boarded from. That was a bit better.

Walked to the end of the train to get a picture. Cooooool!

My business class seat. Strangely, you have economy class, first class, and business class. Business class is actually higher than first class. Don’t try and figure it out.

Super roomy, with only 11 seats in the whole car. A 1×1 row in the back, and then three 2×1 rows. You can’t buy tickets online, but I used China DIY Travel to buy my tickets, and they were super helpful and professional. Very, very highly recommend them!

Some green tee and mango ice cream as we get underway and roll out of the station. The tea was free, but you had to pay like $4 for the ice cream.

About two hours into the 4.5 hour ride, they actually came by with lunch! That was unexpected. I got the “beef” which was reasonable for what was clearly a microwave meal.

Arrival in Beijing, there was a rather long queue for a taxi, but once I got one shockingly this driver spoke just enough English to know how to get to my hotel, the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing. Walking around Beijing a bit after arrival. Well that’s an interesting display in the streets…

While walking around, Fitbit decided to reward me with the “Great Wall badge” for walking 5,500 miles since getting my FitBit. What’s the odds that I would reach this in China!

The next day, my flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, and since it was walkable from my hotel, I decided to go to what was billed as a more local place to get Peking Roast Duck before heading back. Siji Minfu was easy to find based on the large number of people outside…even at 11am! I only had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, however, so it worked out well! I think they found it really strange I was eating alone (I guess that’s not a common thing to do?)

Caramelized durian pudding to start while waiting for my duck.  This was absolutely delicious!

The condiments came soon, and the helpful waitress was great and showed me how they were meant to be used.

Soon out came my duck, which was carved up near the table. Yup, go big or go home, no half duck for me (which was an option) I was going to polish the whole thing off.

My duck, all carved up and ready to devour:

Just in time to head back to the hotel, check out, and head to the airport by subway which was pretty easy to figure out. Overall, I was pretty happy with this hotel, it was in a great walkable area, and maybe the only downside is that the walk to the subway was pretty long. The hotel also felt super crowded, but overall, the quality was great.

Unfortunately, my hotel was about a mile from the subway, so I took a cab to the subway, and then enjoyed the ride to the airport. Beijing’s air wasn’t nearly as good as Shanghai’s and it was actually bit difficult to breathe on my last day there:

So that about wraps up the week in China! Next up, I’ll post about the flights roundtrip on United, and then…I have a trip to Africa to post as well.  Want to knock this out in the next 10 days before I head out for almost a full month of travel that will include Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Kaliningrad, and Berlin!

Sep 182018
 


As I mentioned in a few previous posts I always felt a little guilty when I finished every country that my experiences in Mexico City had been pretty much limited to border regions.

Then, this spring came my first trip to Mexico City for work. Then another trip to Mexico City for work. Then an overnight on an Aeromexico ticket on the way to Chile. Now, it was just August and it was time for my fourth trip this year to Mexico City! I had a couple of very packed days of meetings with clients, but opted to spend the weekend as well so I could dig a little bit deeper. A couple fun shots from the “business portion” of the trip though.

Firstly, the view from my client’s offices of Santa Fe – hard to believe this business/industrial district is almost brand spanking new:

Apparently, it was the season for Chiles en Nogada, or chilis with nuts. A rather different dish served COLD of a chili served stuffed with ground meat and then covered in a nut sauce and pomegranate made to look like the mexican flag. Wasn’t exactly my cup on tea, and unfortunately despite drinking some mezcal to kill any bugs I think this is what did the slow number on my stomach:

A rather unusual sculpture/statue outside the restaurant. Weird, but I have to say I liked it:

After meetings out in Santa Fe, I took a taxi late Friday night into the city so I could spend the whole day Saturday walking around and exploring. Firstly, the weather was gorgeous. Mid 70s, no humidity, and sunny skies. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a food-borne bug, so was feeling pretty sketchy the whole day. Fortunately, I felt just well enough to walk around, and walk I did. Nearly 15 miles during the duration of the day, and I ended up seeing a lot of great sights thanks to some recommendations for friends. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

The Torre Reforma, an office building. I love the unusual architecture:

The other side of the Torre Reforma, taken later in the day. I just find the building really cool:

Continuing my walk from my hotel, and praying that my innards would hold up at least for the stops between venues/sights with baños, I encountered something I definitely didn’t expect to find. The Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park…complete with a large statue of Azerbaijan:

Back side of the monument….

Finally, after a bit over a mile of walking, I made it to the National Museum of Anthropology. Thankful to have not had any…”incidents” along the way, I was greeted out front by a fun group of dancers:

Let me get my one critique of the museum out of the way first. The place is huge. Super huge. No way you can see it all in one day huge. It’s divided into different “halls” around a courtyard by time period and civilization, but beyond telling you what is where, you really have no idea where to start looking for the featured pieces if you’re limited on time. Having a bit of a short attention span for museums, and wanting to see as much of the city as possible, I really wanted to hit the highlights. Thanks to around 30 minutes on google, I managed to find them.

Oh, and since I highlighted my one critique, I should also highlight the biggest unexpected positive: the museum was free today as a “gift” from the new government to the people of Mexico. No, it’s not really that expensive anyways, but it was a nice unexpected bonus, and the place was super crowded.

A Mexica (otherwise known as the Aztecs) death complex sculpture. Something about this one I really enjoyed:

Another Aztec carvin:

The giant Aztec “calendar stone” – I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a group of people to all take their turn taking their selfie in front of it…so of course I couldn’t resist doing the same. The picture doesn’t show the sheer magnitude of the thing, which was 3.5 meters in diameter!

Statue of Xotchipilli, Aztec God of Art and Games…who by the look on his face enjoyed playing games while totally stoned out of his mind:

Montezuma’s headdress, made of quetzal feathers…although there is significant doubt that it’s the “real deal:”

Jade necklace and mask of Pakal the First, a Mayan ruler…that doesn’t exactly look terribly comfortable.

Overall, I super enjoyed this museum, and spent nearly three hours exploring it, which is probably a record for me in a museum. Normally my attention span is gone well before that time, so combine that with being ill this museum is a definite must-see when you’re in Mexico City.

After re-fuelling with caffeine and carrot cake at Starbucks outside the museum (don’t judge….anyone who’s had stomach issues knows that if you find something that sounds good, eat it!) I continued my walk into the park Bosque de Chapultepec which was right across the road. I always find local birds really interesting:

It was beautiful weather, and lots of folks were out on the lake in paddleboats:

After that I walked up, and up, and up, and up, and considered bailing since I wasn’t feeling great, but at the top finally made it to Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum fo History. I was museum-ed out for the day so just wandered the grounds for a bit and took in the sights. I’ll definitely come back to check it out in-depth another time though.

Great views of the city, however, from the castle grounds up on a high hill:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. See, believe me, lots of problems:

The Altar de la Patria in Chapultepec Park:

I was running a bit shorter on time than I realized, and it was already around 3pm at this time, and I still had one more sight I really wanted to try and squeeze in. I had hoped to take the metro down to the Trotsky Museum, but since I was short on time I took an Uber since it was only like $6. Unfortunately, due to traffic, it still took like 45 minutes to get there (Mexico City can have absolutely terrible traffico) but I still made it with an hour to spare. I loved the entrance of the museum:

Trotsky’s grave:

The Casa de Trotsky – his house – where he lived in exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union. As a student of Soviet history, I found this museum super interesting:

Trotsky’s office, where he worked while in exile, until dying by a pick-axe to the head:

Gotta have a selfie with Trotsky’s grave!

After the museum, I took the nice mile or so stroll to the metro, where I stopped in a mall next to the metro stop for a small snack before boarding the train back towards my hotel. One thing I found really interesting – and somewhat depressing – is that part of the platform in the Mexico City subway is blocked off for women and children only. Interesting, because I applaud them for taking this step to protect people, depressing because it indicates that men are poorly enough behaved that women need to be protected.

Another shot of barriers in another station, along with what the trains look like:

I had to giggle, because it turned out my hotel was apparently right across the street from a string of gay bars, and being Saturday night they were absolutely swarming with 20-somethings. I felt old. But you have to love a place named “The Gayta Pussy Bar” Hah!

After a bit of exploring, I decided to hop back on the metro and check out a bar called The Beer Company. It was about 30 minutes and a short walk away by metro, and being a gorgeous evening I enjoyed a few beers on the patio. The place wasn’t at all crowded, but had that nice neighbourhood bar feel…and the complete lack of English spoken only made it feel more fun.

While “checking in” the new beers in the Untappd App I saw that there was apparently a tap takeover going on at another bar in the city, and despite being tired and worn out I had to check it out. I headed over to Tasting Room which had not only some incredibly funky alien decor (I finally figured out the mysteries of Easter Island):

…but also had an amazing draft list. This place was a gem in Mexico City, and I’ll definitely be back here for drinks the next time I’m in Mexico City.

By this point, I was absolutely exhausted, and really impressed just how much I managed to see for a day when I was seriously not feeling well.

With that, it was time to fly off the next morning for a few days in Minnesota with family for my birthday on the way back to DC…and to get a bit of rest before beginning an incredibly busy travel period – even by my standards!  Post to come on that in the coming days before I head off on probably my craziest two months of travel ever!

Jul 142018
 


So, a bit of a background. First, as I’ve mentioned before, this trip came about because of an incredibly good business class fare from New York to Santiago, Chile. Two things that make that noteworthy: first, I had to find a way to get up to New York to start and end the trip. I debated trying to fly standby, but with a paid ticket on the line, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk…so bought a one way up to JFK on Delta, and home on American. Why? Because the timing worked best with a 2:30 to 3:30 layover in New York. Other options would have been too close to risk, or so long it was ridiculous. Easy enough.

Now, two years ago, when I finished going to every country, I always felt a bit bad about Mexico. I’d probably been to Mexico 5-10 times, but always daytrips to Tijuana or Nogales…although I once spent a three day weekend in Ensenada which is actually like 20 miles into Mexico, so I didn’t feel like I’d totally cheated. That said, I also didn’t feel like I’d “seen” Mexico.

So, I was looking forward to an overnight in Mexico on this trip to see a tiny bit more…but then a couple weeks after booking, I ended up with a five day trip to Mexico City for work, which gave me a couple of full days to explore the city. Then, a week before leaving on this trip…another last minute trip back to my client in Mexico City, meaning I would be flying BACK from Mexico City on a Wednesday…and then flying right back on this trip on Thursday. Yes, twice 24 hours apart. Life has a funny way sometimes of surprising us.

Right, so, not much to say. Off to National Airport, no real lines, and boarding right on time. I had decided to risk the upgrade for the short flight rather than pay Delta the extra $150, and I was surprised three days before when my first class upgrade came through. Nice little surprise…until I woke up the morning of the flight to see that Delta had downgraded me again…the usual DCA issue of Federal Air Marshalls taking your seat at the last minute…although they’ll never really admit that’s what happened. 10,000 miles later, Delta had done the right thing – I only hope the government is compensating them for all these clusterfucks…I’ve seen it happen at DCA way too many times.

Delta flight 5937 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:29, flight time: 1:29
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N875RW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 6C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 50,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,570,476

Quick flight, no taxi/takeoff delays which is very unusual on a DCA-JFK flight, and soon we landed in JFK. I’ve never flown Delta through JFK before, so apparently I was destined for the complete experience. Landing and parking at Terminal 2, taking the “JFK Jitney” bus over to Terminal 4, and then walking pretty much to Connecticut to the rather remote Delta SkyClub.

I was rewarded with some hummus, grilled chicken breasts, and a glass of wine for my trouble. There was a rather large group of bros in the club who looked like they were heading on spring break, gorging on the chicken breasts like they’d been protein-deprived for months…I think people-watching might be one of my favourite parts of travel…

Of course, the Aeromexico flight was at the far end of Terminal 4 from the SkyClub, so I promptly left Connecticut, and undertook the rather long walk to New Jersey. Stopped at Peet’s Coffee on the way (ok, so maybe I don’t hate Terminal 4 quite so much now) and was greeted with a 100+ person long queue for priority boarding at the Aeromexico gate. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone must be “elite” in Mexico, but no big deal..there would be plenty of overhead space.

Unfortunately, Mexico had just lost to Brazil in the World Cup, and my flight was packed with fans coming off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow who were all in a rather dejected mood.

Aeromexico flight 409
New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 15:20, Arrive: 19:15, flight time: 4:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration N446AM, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,292
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,572,567

First impression of the seats on the Aeromexico 787-9 was fantastic! Roomy, and quite private.

Impressed from the other side too – the walls are high enough you can’t see the people, and the way the seats are angled to the window you’re not looking at the person across the aisle either. Plus, the seats were nice and wide. What a fantastic product!

Welcome aboard bubbles…the flight attendants were unusually particular about putting the coasters down, and collecting them along with your glass. No, you can’t save one for a souvenir…

Once up in the air, lunch service promptly started. I’m pretty over the mixed nuts that seem to start off every international business class meal, and Aeromexico was definitely out to impress. Cheese as a starter pre-meal with my wine? Aeromexico, I think we’re going to get along just swimmingly!

I can’t remember the time I went with the pasta option for a main, and I regret doing it now. Bland, flavourless, and the quinoa salad was pretty terrible as well. This meal had so much potential…just a bit more bacon on the pasta, maybe a bit more cheese, and a little more cream to the sauce and it would have been wonderful. Unfortunate, because after the cheese starter I had such high hopes!

I know lots of people whine about “packaged deserts aren’t appropriate in business class” but give me some delicious ice cream any day to some dried out piece of cake. Simple is best when it comes to desert in the air!

Landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, no line at all for immigration, and soon I was in my taxi. It was absolutely pouring rain outside, but there was no traffic at all (how can that be at 7:30pm in Mexico City?!) and in less than 30 minutes I was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel.

On my previous trip when I had a weekend “downtown,” I chose the Le Meridien, which I found very disappointing. Not a great location with much going on around it (though very convenient for my Historical Center walking tour), and old rooms that loud rattly air conditioning. Add to that a very disappointing and shabby bar, and I wasn’t keen to try it again.

Either my Spanish is getting better, or the staff at the Sheraton wasn’t too keen to practice their English, so I think I managed my first every check-in completely in Spanish, complete with a discussion about all the platinum benefits they offer. Not bed!

Lobby had a giant soccer ball in it in honour of the World Cup…only sad that Mexico had just been eliminated.

Upgraded to a very, very nice suite, with a view of El Ángel right outside my window. Picture taken from my room:

Sleeping area was pretty generic Sheraton-standard, but ice cold air conditioning was very welcome!

Second room of the suite…you could have a party in this room it was so big!

…they must have known I was coming, because a couple of craft beers and some snacks were waiting for me in the room.

Went for a short walk to stretch my legs, and ended up at Fiebre de Malta which I had discovered on my previous trip. I didn’t need a whole lot to eat after the Aeromexico flight, but how can I resist some tacos?! When in Mexico…

Back to the Sheraton, I still wasn’t tired, so decided to have a Patron margarita and enjoy the World Cup decor in the lobby bar. MUCH nicer than the lobby bar at Le Meridien.

The margarita showed up, and was clearly made with fresh-squeezed lime and was delicious. This stay couldn’t have been more night and day compared with my stay at the Le Meridien, and there’s no doubt I would stay here again. I had such a nice stay that I think I need to return again for a 3-4 day weekend and explore the city a bit more in depth next time.

Off to bed, as I had a rather early flight the next morning onwards to Santiago…

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….

Feb 262018
 


Woke up in the morning, and saw the first two trains of the day to Frankfurt had already been canceled. This was an ominous sign. The weather definitely seemed better today, but the worst of the wind was supposedly quite a distance south. Oh well, we’ll see what the day brings!

Walked to the U-Bahn to head over to Starbucks, and the sidewalks were completely clear this morning. Definitely a huge improvement over the day before. There didn’t seem to be much wind, so I was pretty hopeful that my train would go as planned today. In order to get to Frankfurt with plenty of time to rest and relax in the evening, I had booked myself on the 13:30 train to Frankfurt so I could sleep in a bit as well as have plenty of time to get dinner in Frankfurt.

After Starbucks, same routine as the day before. A bit like Groundhog Day – back to the Westin to pack up, walked to the U-Bahn thanks to the clear sidewalks, train to Hauptbanhof, get to the platform…just in time to see the train delayed by 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 25 minutes, and then a phrase popped up on the board which I unfortunately added to my German vocabulary on this trip: “Zug fällt aus” – train canceled. Here we go again.

Rebooked myself via the app on the 14:30 train, which was at least kind enough to cancel on me 10 minutes before departure. This was getting frustrating. Ok, one last chance, I’m going to book myself on the 15:30 train, which was conveniently already delayed 30 minutes:

It was cold in the station, so I retreated to where else – Starbucks – for a nice warm coffee. I don’t know who this Justin character is, but I seemed to get his coffee an awful lot in Germany.

At this point I was getting a little nervous about getting to Frankfurt and potentially missing my flight home the next day. A quick check of the United app showed that the 20:00 Hamburg to Frankfurt flight had cheap award seats, so I booked one as a backup plan. It was a direct shot on the U-Bahn to the airport, so I decided if I didnt make it on the 17:30 train I would hightail it to the airport and figure out how to eventually refund my train ticket.

Fortunately, as predicted and only about 15 minutes later than the predicted time, there was much rejoicing on the platform. Surprisingly, the train was only about half full despite the seat map being completely full. I think lots of people had made several sets of backup plans.

Eventually we left, which called for a celebratory beer. Who know it would be so hard to catch a train!

Other than that, it was pretty uneventful. We didn’t make up much time, and by the time I got to Frankfurt it was almost 20:00. I was tempted to stay in and call it a night, but then I remembered I could sleep the entire flight back the next day if I really wanted. So, off to Naïv for some beer and tasty flatbread!

Finished off with a nice heavy Imperial Stout as an Auf Wiedersehen to Germany!

All in all, things worked out fine. I was really looking forward to the full day I was supposed to have in Frankfurt to head down to the Technik Museum in Sinsheim to see the Tupolev and Concorde as well as the Technik Museum in Speyer to see the Space Shuttle Buran, but I guess that will have to wait for a future trip. At least it’s a relatively easy trip from Frankfurt.

Perhaps next time, I’ll do a different loop from Frankfurt for a week, taking in some of the south and east of the country, maybe including Hannover, Bremen Köln, Stuttgart, and Munich….food for thought.

But for now, it’s time for the flight home in Lufthansa First!

Feb 252018
 


So, I overslept. I mean, it was kind of intentional. I’m still figuring out this “vacation” thing where relaxing is supposed to be as much of a part of it as seeing things is. Plus, it was cold out, and a harbour boat tour didn’t sound great in that weather. When I finally got up and opened the windows around 9am, I was greeted with snow…and wind…and lots of it:

It was right around freezing so the snow wasn’t sticking that much, but it was coming down pretty hard:

The snow on the ceiling to floor windows actually gave the room a nice look:

Neither wind, nor rain, nor snow can keep me from Starbucks…I mean the US Mail…or whatever that phrase is. Off through the snow to the U-Bahn to see a little bit of the city despite the snow:

I loved this ad for free WiFi in the U-Bahn….”When you have free WiFi…and find the superfluffy!”

Got out at the Rathaus, where people were wandering about enjoying the snow. Oh, and yes, there’s a Starbucks located right on the square naturally.

Did I mention how thankful I was that I bought that hat back in Dresden?

Wandered a bit, then back to the Westin to check out and grab my bags. I’d noticed that one of the morning Hamburg to Frankfurt trains had canceled, but didn’t really think too much of it.

One of the downsides of having a rolling bag is that when there’s a few cm of slushy snow on the ground, rolling it to the U-Bahn doesn’t really work so well…and the snow was still coming down pretty hard, so rather than try and carry my bag that far I opted to taxi an actual…gasp… taxi since there are no Ubers in Hamburg. Taxi to the train station worked reasonably well, was just slightly more than 10 euro, and when I got there the station was absolutely packed and chaotic:

I still had about 45 minutes until my train (which was showing on time) so I headed up to the second level of the station to look down on the masses below. Trains to Frankfurt were pretty much hourly, and five minutes before it was scheduled to leave the train before mine canceled. Great, this means that mine will be absolutely packed.

Headed to the other side and looked down…the station was suspiciously empty at this point….

Down to the tracks….and there’s no train….five minutes past departure…no train…10 minutes past departure…no train. 15 minutes past departure….canceled.

Fortunately, the DB app works reasonably well, and I was able to book on the next train which was showing 15 minutes late. Ok, I had an hour to kill and was getting a bit hungry, so, when in Hamburg….ich bin ein Hamburger!  😉

Down to the trains for my train an hour later and…surprise surprise…no train. Departure time came and went and then….train canceled.

Time to find someone who worked there…and there was a DB employee in the lobby surrounded by a rather large mob of unhappy people. It took me three or four times of hearing him shout it out since my German isn’t that great, but eventually the message was clear: ALL trains from Hamburg are canceled for the remainder of the day.

Did a bit of goggling, and finally figure out what was going on: Winter Storm Friederike had hit northern Germany and the Netherlands with 100+ kph winds and snow, and was causing tons of infrastructure damage. I’ll be honest, by Minnesotan and Nor’easter standards I wasn’t all that impressed, but I get it when you have trains that go upwards of 200+ kph that it might not be safe to have them out there.

Plans foiled, and having been happy enough with the Westin, I made a quick reservation in the app, and grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. They were a bit surprised to see me back, having not heard that all trains were canceled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one stranded, so was very lucky to get the same style of suite again, just on a different floor.

Caught up on a few emails, and back up to the lounge to relax over some light snacks and a glass of wine.

…why not make a meal of it, since I was unsure if the weather would impact the restaurants or not.

Determined to make the most of a bad situation, and warmed by a couple glasses of wine, I made the trek to the U-Bahn (I’d say sidewalks were about 25% clear finally) and made the trek out to the edges of the city to Mr. Ape – a fun little hole in the wall hipster bar which had a pretty good selection of craft beer:

The only downside to Mr. Ape? They allowed smoking, which was a bit annoying. Fortunately, it was only a couple of people and grabbing a seat at the bar was pretty far from them, but still…pretty annoying. Was debating heading out to a second place, but a long day of trying to catch trains was catching up with me so opted to go back and crash. Who knew what the trains would hold the next day….